Begin listing classic American cookbooks and several titles will always arise: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, the many editions of The Joy of Cooking, and Marion Cunningham’s 1990 publication of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (though I suppose I’d include every edition before that as well).
I love combing through these pages, looking for inspiration and discovering spaces of time where food was romanticized, the fundament of a lifestyle that was wholesome and healthy by default, simple in the gracious acceptance of all food could offer.
These books promote a desire to slow down and savor what’s good, but there’s one that remains without note. It’s the collection my mom relies upon for weeknight dinners, the book she opens when entertaining, and the pages she thumbs through on quiet Sunday afternoons.
It’s a book that urges discovery, highlighting Mediterranean flavors and Spanish ingredients, a book credited with the appearance of arugula and ubiquity of pesto, and of course, the source for the well-loved picnic standby, Chicken Marbella.
It was published in 1982 by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso at a time when the most recent developments of France’s nouvelle cuisine were still fascinating Americans and dominating all dining experiences. These shifts were sometimes subtle, but always revelatory and inspiring. And I feel this most when we make Pasta Sauce with Tomatoes, Brie and Basil.
I’m not usually someone dissuaded by warm temperatures in my choice to turn on the oven. I love baking regardless of season, indulging in the technique and only altering my ingredients. I pay attention to humidity, of course, but am never one to turn down the suggestion of a goat cheese soufflé on a summer evening.
So no, I don’t go to this recipe because of an aversion to heat. Instead, I’m drawn to the ease of method, and that you can assemble the sauce after lunch, when thoughts of dinner begin to cloud my thoughts. Gather in the kitchen, chopping the tomatoes and garlic, mixing in a chiffonade of basil, and drizzling everything with a luscious glug of olive oil. We love tearing the brie into robust portions, thinking of the pieces almost as dollops because of their creamy, smooth texture. A seasoning of salt and pepper to follow.
That’s the recipe’s integrity, the recipe in its essence and near-entirety. The bowl lies next to the sink, with only the appearance of repose. But flavors mix and meld as you let the tomatoes sit at room temperature for anywhere between two and eight hours.
During this time, you can take a walk, a nap, read a book or simply laze about. This dish is best on weekends without any plans, with little constraint. Implicit in the recipe is an interim, a break in which you temporarily forget your composition of ingredients, returning to it with the near sensation of uncovering something new, novel, and entirely changed.
Begin boiling the pasta at the evening’s change of light, when late afternoon gives way to a slight evening chill, and a scattering of tea lights gives ample illumination to the table. Heavily salt a large pot of water and bring to a boil. We divided a pound of pasta into a mixture of rigatoni and fusilli, dropping in the former a minute early to cook a moment longer. Cavatappi is a wonderful alternative, allowing the sauce to cling to its thick spirals. Cook to al dente, just so. The pasta is ready when it gives only the slightest resistance to the tooth. Drain into a colander and pile into the bowl with the tomatoes. The brie will begin to melt as you toss the warm pasta with the tomatoes, ensuring a sheen of rose-hued red and the gleam of cheese encompassing your pasta. If you’ve timed it right, you’ll bring the abundant bowl to the table when all sunlight is gone, and the totality of night establishes itself across the sky.
We were five, with enough left over for two of our lunches the following afternoon. Admittedly, we each spooned out bits of brie and tomatoes, not hungry enough for another serving but hoping still to relish the lingering flavors as we remained at the table until late.
I’ve provided proportions below, hoping that the above narrative will suffice for method. Enjoy, and serve alongside a dry rosé with enough bread to mop up the juices, ensuring that you get all you can from this delicious meal.
Pasta Sauce with Tomatoes, Brie and Basil
Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook
3/4 pound Brie
4 medium market tomatoes (ripe-as-can-be)
2 medium cloves garlic
1/2 cup loosely packed basil leaves, cleaned and dried
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons excellent olive oil
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound curly pasta (enjoy such liberty of choice to experiment)